CIOs: It`s Time to Lead

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 03-06-2009

I'm a firm believer that despite the recession, 2009 holds plenty of opportunities for CIOs. And conversations with dozens of CIOs in recent weeks have only strengthened that belief.

Naysayers will claim I'm simply buying into the spin of corporate executives. Obviously, there are plenty of indicators suggesting 2009 will be nothing short of traumatic. But there are many indicators to the contrary, especially for CIOs.

Take, for example, what Microsoft CIO Tony Scott told me recently. "Many CIOs are probably better positioned than most of their colleagues in business to understand how to manage in this environment," he said. "Most CIOs I know have been dealing with flat or declining budgets for seven, eight years at least, and have learned how to get more productivity and to expand the capability and functionality of what they have with the same or fewer dollars."

That discipline takes time to hone, but it should serve CIOs well in this troubled year.

What we know already is that IT spending will likely decline as the year goes on. But it isn't all doom and gloom on the budgetary front--just take a look at our annual IT Spending Study.

Despite the economic pressures, businesses are more focused on growing revenue than cutting costs. But to do the latter, they are doing something surprising: They're increasing IT spending to help drive down costs. And they're upping expenditures faster than their revenue-focused peers.

CIOs are looking to application infrastructure and services expenditures to help drive down costs, our study finds. Plenty of cost-saving technologies exist in the marketplace, and savvy IT leaders will be well-served by maximizing their use this year.

But making smart spending decisions is only part of the battle. Rob Austin, head of Harvard Business School's CIO executive program, and Dick Nolan, his predecessor and partner there, say CIOs need to focus more than ever before on their business smarts. Their vehicle for promoting that shift: Jim Barton, the new CIO of IVK Corp. Barton transitioned from heading the firm's loan operations business to become CIO under the firm's new CEO. Despite his non-IT background, Barton accentuates his business savvy to get things done.

The catch: Barton isn't real, nor is his company. They're the central points of Austin and Nolan's new book, The Adventures of an IT Leader, a detailed fable of what it takes to lead IT organizations today. In trying times--and in a job where solid advice is hard to find--CIOs should seek guidance wherever they can. Barton's experience, as well as his creators' perspectives, can help steer CIOs through the challenges they will face this year.

As Kimberly-Clark CIO Ramon Baez and Chubb CIO Jim Knight told us in the last issue, collaborating effectively with the business is perhaps the most vital ingredient to success in 2009. To do that, CIOs must educate their non-technical executive colleagues about how their IT organizations can drive the business forward.

CIOs like Kevin Hart of fiber-optics provider Level 3 Communications and Albert Lulushi of defense contractor L-3 Communications are finding creative ways to engage business leaders about various IT initiatives. But plenty of pitfalls remain.

This is a year when CIOs need to step up. As Microsoft CIO Scott says, only the strongest businesses survive. IT leaders can be key players in making their companies more formidable. It's up to them to make it happen.